Michael King examines whether traditional Terminal Operating Systems can be expanded to manage entire ports
Software systems designed to help manage port and terminal operations take many forms. The port authority, for example, might have its own Port Operating System (POS) or Harbour Management System used to track and control vessel departures, tugs, pilots and other port services.
Individual terminal operators usually have their own Terminal Operating System (TOS) specifically geared to the cargo they handle. Gate procedures and other back office functions might also be managed separately using specialist software and IT systems.
A scenario whereby a port has a dozen different legacy software systems running simultaneously, quite often trying to process and understand inter-related information but unable to communicate effectively or provide key performance indicator (KPI) data across the port is no doubt familiar to many readers. Apart from creating obstacles to smooth operations, competing software systems complicate basic tracking and tracing of cargo through a port and further disrupt the supply chain transparency that many customers now see as a necessity, not a luxury.
Finding the correct IT solution for an individual port or terminal depends on many factors including cargo mix, ownership, operational structure and the software systems already in place. But the idea of a super-smart POS able to manage the traditional POS functions but also taking on back office and TOS tasks to bring communications uniformity and transparency to a port, simultaneously slashing operating costs and speeding operations has, become something of a Holy Grail in port management circles.
Whether this is now possible is open to debate, but what is clear is that as the functionality of terminal handling software and IT products expands, the boundaries between where a POS starts and a TOS ends is blurring, with software companies now adding traditional POS functions on to TOS solutions.
"My definition of a POS is a system that allows a port to manage the business - both terminal and berthing requirements - at that port," says Dave Quennell, logistics programme manager at Jade Software Corporation.
Mr Quennell says the type of operations determine whether the additional features a super-POS can supply over and above the typical functions offered by a TOS are really required. "A landlord [container] terminal operator isn't going to need vessel berth planning and scheduling, and probably isn't interested in general cargo operations," he argues. "These sorts of terminals are simply shifting boxes in varying degrees of volumes.
"The operators that do require mixed cargo operational support, along with containers and possibly determining where and when to berth their ships - and these may not only be cargo vessels - are the ones that struggle finding software.
"Their needs are actually more complex than a simple container operation. General cargo, for example, is a significant issue. You've got to be able to handle large manifests off ships, perform underages/shortage/damage reconciliation to the cargo that's been received, and that is not individually identified like a container is - it could simply be 500 bundles of two inch pipe. The cargo gets released in 'lots', all at differing times to differing truckers. The system needs to be intelligent enough to provide support to handle these sort of things. The ownership structure doesn't play a role in my view, its all about the operations."
Tideworks Technology, which is best known for its TOS products, takes a different line. Company president Michael Schwank believes that ports looking to leverage POS functionality in conjunction with an existing TOS can best achieve their aims by integrating a TOS with a POS rather than expanding the functionality of a TOS itself. "Our goal is to help customers reach their operational and financial objectives through the deployment of the right technology for their needs, so we would recommend a third-party port operating system and lend our integration expertise so that the POS and our TOS communicate in real-time," he says. "We maintain a successful track record integrating our systems with a variety of third party systems to further streamline productivity, including financial and accounting systems, gate camera and scale systems and optical character recognition (OCR) systems."
The suitability of installing a POS, he claims, primarily depends on the ownership structure of the port. Where the port provides the services associated with a POS or port management system a POS might be a good fit for the port authority. "This is not to say that a private terminal operator could not also benefit from such a system, but it is typically under the jurisdiction of the port authority," he says, adding that TOS and POS options are complementary rather than competitive.
Australia-based Realtime Business Solutions supplies TOS systems for container handling at ports, rail, multi-modal and truck terminals.
A spokesman tells Port Strategy that POS is most suitable for projects where the port authority is the client but individual companies are running terminals within the port under concessions. The sort of TOS products offered by RBS can work in ports where the port authority is also the major terminal operator, irrespective of whether the individual terminals are handling ro-ro, breakbulk or container cargoes.
Mr Quennell believes Jade's products bridge the TOS-POS divide. "I've been told by a couple of our customers that they actually believe Jade Master Terminal is a Port Operating System rather than just a TOS because of the breadth of its capabilities," he says.
He cites the company's work with Port Nelson in New Zealand where Jade has migrated a traditional TOS set up to cover most of the functions usually associated with a POS.
"In my view, it's all about one integrated system to handle any cargo that could possibly come along, having the ability to grow parts of the business as opportunities present themselves and to portray a single application to both your customers and staff, rather than a series of disjointed systems struggling to tie all the information together," he says.
"Traditional TOS systems are made this way, a series of interconnected systems that try and swap data between them. These can cause a maintenance nightmare without adding any real value. Our approach has always considered our end users, and their general lack of IT skills - they are ports, that's their business. We make it easy to use the system, and drastically reduce their operational costs through everyone using the same software."
Are there any circumstances where a port management system covering TOS functionality might not be the best solution? Not according to Mr Quennell. He takes the view that if a terminal is considering a simple TOS, a POS offers all the same features plus a lot more. "If the terminal handles general cargo, bulk cargo, or provides berth planning services for ships as well as their 'normal' container business then the POS is clearly a far more cost effective way to move forward rather than trying to source individual systems to provide these services and then somehow try and stitch the data from these systems together."
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